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By COLLEEN COBLE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Colleen Coble
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSHE DIDN'T KNOW HOW FAR SHE'D DRIVEN-ALL SHE KNEW was that it wasn't far enough. The lights on the dash moved in her vision, growing and receding as she gripped the steering wheel and struggled to hang on to consciousness. Nothing but the moon illuminated this lonely stretch of highway. The digital clock read 8:03.
Panic beat in her chest like a bird trying to escape her rib cage. She had to get away, had to find a place to hide. Her hand touched her ribs and came away with sticky wetness. How much blood had she lost? Her fingers probed the spot again, and she discovered a six-inch gash. Had she been in a car accident?
Her gaze wandered to the rearview mirror, and she moved it so she could see the child in the car seat in the back. Confusion clouded her mind. She struggled to put a name to the little girl who looked to be about two. Her child? Her gaze took in the worn backpack beside the sleeping child, but nothing looked familiar.
A green sign flashed past as the car weaved. Rock Harbor, ten miles. She had no idea where this town was located, not even what state. Maybe she was just tired. Too frightened to think, to plan. Her head ached abominably, and her vision continued to waver.
Headlights haloed withdistorted rings of color sprang into view behind her, and the panic surged into her throat again. She pressed her foot to the accelerator.
He couldn't find her.
The car responded to the acceleration at first. Her tires zoomed along the road, their hum sounding loud inside the car. The other vehicle receded in her rearview mirror. But her elation faded when the wheel shuddered in her hands. The engine coughed.
"No, no," she moaned. "Not now." He would catch her. She struggled for a name to put with the danger, but it wouldn't come. If her head would just quit aching, she could think.
The car convulsed again, then began to slow. The warning lights on the dash blinked, then held steady, glaring their threat into the night. She fought the wheel as the power steering failed with the engine. The sore muscles in her arms screamed.
She managed to steer the car onto the shoulder of the road. Glancing behind her, she saw the lights were no longer following her. But that didn't mean he wasn't back there somewhere. Every moment that ticked by brought him closer.
Cranking the key, she tried to start the engine. "Come on, come on," she whispered. "Oh God, please help me!" The engine turned over slowly but didn't catch. She tried again, and it coughed to shuddering life. It wouldn't run long the way it missed. She had to get the car out of sight, throw him off her trail.
A small path opened between thick, ice-frosted brush. Though it wasn't a real lane, she pulled onto it and caught the glimmer of moon on water. A plan sprang to life, but she found it hard to think through all the ramifications. She put her hand on her pounding temple, and her fingers brushed a bump on her scalp, a lump so big and tender that her misery increased.
Her stomach convulsed with nausea. She stopped the car, opened the door, leaned out, and threw up. She couldn't remember ever hurting so much. She could still feel the knife slicing through her flesh.
A knife. Where had that thought come from? Surely she hadn't been stabbed. Had she? She groaned and laid her forehead against the steering wheel. Someone had tried to kill her. Somehow she knew this.
The car engine still sputtered. He would find her, kill her, finish the job he'd started. She got out and inhaled the cold night air tinged with moisture. The fresh, clean scent penetrated her mental fog and gave her hope. Staggering and dizzy, she managed to get the toddler out, car seat and all, and set the seat with the sleeping child on the ground. The child's parka lay inside the car by the backpack. She tucked it around the little girl.
Her vision blackened, and she thumped down beside the child and put her head between her knees. Once her sight cleared, she crawled to the car door again and hauled herself to her feet. She took out the backpack, then sat on the edge of the seat with her feet on the ground. Unzipping it, she checked the contents: a small purse, changes of clothing for the child.
She dropped the backpack beside the child, then staggered back to the driver's door and got in. She pulled the transmission lever into drive, then guided the car toward the lake. The water showed under a light coating of ice, so the car should plunge right through.
The speedometer showed 25 miles per hour. She shoved open the door and sprang from the car. Her shoulder slammed into the ice-slicked knoll. The impact knocked the air out of her.
She lay facedown in mud while the pain thundered in her head and her side. The agony pushed out all other thoughts. The blood running down her side and pooling under her felt warm.
With a groan, she welcomed the darkness that blotted out her pain and terror.
Her dreams were punctuated with screams and the sound of crying. Gradually she became aware that the cries were real. She moaned, then sat up and pushed her hair out of her face. The level of pounding in her head had eased off, maybe enough to think. She lurched to her feet.
Glancing around, she saw the vehicle was gone. How long had she been unconscious? Staggering, she started toward the toddler. "It's okay, baby," she crooned, her voice hoarse and sore as if she'd been screaming. Maybe some of the screams in her dreams had been her own.
The little girl held up her arms. "Mama," she sobbed.
Lifting the toddler into her arms, she cradled the child's head against her shoulder. "It's okay, sweetie," she whispered into the child's soft blonde hair. Had a child's hair ever smelled so sweet? It felt strange and familiar all at the same time.
"Mama." The little girl nestled close and popped her thumb in her mouth.
A wave of maternal love rose in her chest. This was her daughter, even if she didn't know the little girl's name. "What's your name, sweetheart? How old are you?"
The little girl took her thumb out of her mouth. "Two," she said. She held up chubby fingers. "Two."
"You're two," she agreed. "But what's your name?" The little girl didn't answer. The wind kicked up, and she realized she needed to put the child's coat on her. The toddler cooperated by sticking her arms into the sleeves.
Now that she was shivering, she dimly remembered seeing her own coat on the seat. How stupid not to grab it.
The backpack she'd pulled from the car before she disposed of the vehicle lay at her feet. Her purse was in there. Surely she had a driver's license. Still holding the child, she knelt beside the backpack. She rooted out the purse she'd seen and unzipped it. One by one, she examined the contents by the bright light of the moon.
There was no identification in the purse. It actually seemed to be the child's play purse. She found cherry ChapStick, a broken green crayon, a tiny doll, and a bib. Where was her own purse? She should have checked the floor and the glove box before sending the car into the lake.
She touched the ring finger on her left hand. A ring had worn a groove there, but her finger was bare. Was she divorced? Was it her husband she was fleeing from?
Struggling to think, she pulled a bulky shape from the dark shadows of her mind and shuddered. He couldn't find her now. Surely she'd come far enough. She touched the goose egg on her head. It had started to bleed.
"Mama has to put you down a minute," she told the little girl. The child didn't complain when she set her on the frosted grass.
She started to shoulder the backpack, then felt something swing along her chest. Her fingers touched a necklace. Fumbling with the latch, she managed to get the necklace off and held it up to the moonlight. Small ballet slippers swung on a delicate chain. She turned it over and noticed something engraved on the back, but it was too dark to make out the word.
Clutching the necklace in her palm, she shouldered the backpack, then lifted the child into her arms. Holding the toddler on her right hip with her right arm steadying her, she picked up the car seat and went through the trees back to the road.
She set her feet on the deserted road and began to walk in the direction she'd been traveling. An owl hooted from a tree overhead, and other night sounds rustled in the brush. Were there bears here? Wolves? She tried to quicken her pace, but she was weak and unsteady.
Her breath fogged the air, but carrying the little girl warmed her. One bare foot in front of the other. Where were her shoes? There were no lights in the distance to beckon her, but desire to protect the child drove her. Her ears rang, and it was all she could do to hang on to her senses.
She glanced behind and froze. Headlights loomed. They weren't there the last time she looked. The vehicle was nearly on top of her. She tried to step back into the shelter of the trees, but the vehicle rolled to a stop and a woman's voice called out.
"Are you okay? Do you need a ride?"
Her knees nearly buckled. It wasn't a man. The woman sounded worried. And friendly.
The woman exited the car and gasped as she rounded the hood. "You've got a child. What are you doing walking out here alone? And barefoot?" She took the car seat and set it by the Jeep. "You don't have a coat."
The welcome dome light spilled onto the pavement. A small boy peered from the backseat. Red hair like the woman. Maybe seven years old or so. A dog, a mutt mixture that looked part German shepherd, stuck its head out the window and barked.
A family. Tears welled in her eyes. Thank God. "I'd be grateful for a ride," she said.
"I'm Bree Matthews." Bree's gaze went to the lump on the woman's head. "You're bleeding. I'd better get you to the hospital."
"It's not that bad. I just need to find a hotel or something." She gulped. "I ... I don't have any money though," she stammered. "I lost my purse."
"You don't have to be afraid. I won't let anyone hurt you," Bree said. "What's your name?" She opened the rear hatch, reached in, and pulled out a blanket.
Would Bree think she was crazy? She had to risk it, since her head hurt too badly to make up something. "I ... I don't know. I can't remember. My head hurts so much." Her stomach rebelled, but she managed to swallow the bile that burned her throat. She set the little girl down, took the blanket Bree held out, and draped it around herself.
"We need to get you to the doctor." Bree opened the passenger door. "Here, sit down."
Panic burned more intensely in her chest. "No hospital." She took her daughter's hand and began to walk away, then stumbled and went down on one knee.
Bree knelt beside her and put an arm around her, helping her rise. "It's okay. I've got a friend who's a doctor. He'll come to my home."
The young woman wasn't very big, maybe five-three, but she possessed a reassuring sense of strength. "Where am I?"
"Just outside Rock Harbor. The west side of Michigan's Upper Peninsula." Bree reached under the blanket, took one strap of the backpack, and began to ease it off her shoulders. "We'll sort this out in the morning. You and your little girl are about to drop. I've got room at my house. Let me help you."
Tears sprang from her eyes. "Thank you," she whispered. Maybe she could find a safe harbor there for a few days. If she could just sleep, maybe her memory would come back.
Chapter TwoTHE LIGHTHOUSE BEACON FLASHED FROM THE CLIFF THAT overlooked Lake Superior. Bree hoped the sight gave the young woman beside her as much comfort as it always gave her. "This is home," she told the woman.
About five-four, the woman was as icy and beautiful as a Swedish princess, but terror and uncertainty haunted her blue eyes. Someone had abused her for sure. In the soft wash of light from the dash, Bree saw that her long blonde hair was filthy with blood, dirt, and twigs.
"We have to call you something," Bree said. She flipped on the dome light and glanced into the backseat. "What's your name, sweetie?"
The little girl looked at her mother in the passenger seat, then back to Bree. "Terri. Terri two." She held up two fingers.
Bree smiled. "You're adorable, Terri. What's Mommy's name?"
Terri looked up at the woman. "Mama."
Bree stifled a sigh. Of course the little girl would only know her as Mother. "Maybe when you get some rest, you can remember your name," she said to the woman.
The blonde opened her hand, and something glinted in her palm. She held it to the light and squinted at the necklace. "I think my name is Elena," she said, holding out the necklace.
The name was engraved on the back of one of the golden ballet slippers. "You look like an Elena," Bree said.
Elena put the necklace back on while she peered through the window. "You live in a lighthouse?"
"My first husband and I bought it. When he died, I made a commitment to restore it. My second husband, Kade, hung the Fresnel lens, and we activated the light again." Bree glanced at the woman's hands as her long, slim fingers worried the space where a ring had left an indentation on her left ring finger. She'd bet Elena was running from an abusive husband. Poor thing. "That's my son, Davy, back there. And our dog, Samson."
Elena smiled at the little boy. "Hi," she said, pressing her fingers against her temple. "Won't your husband be upset when you come dragging in some vagabonds?"
"Kade's great. He'll want to help. Are you sure there isn't someone I can call for you?"
Elena's lips twisted, and she held up her hands. "Please, no. No questions tonight. I just need to sleep."
"I've got a bed all ready," Bree said soothingly.
Samson whined. He pushed his nose against Elena's hand, where she'd laid it on her armrest. She flinched, then relaxed and stroked the dog's head. "You've got a nice dog," she said.
"Samson is a search-and-rescue dog, one of the best in the country. But more than that, he's part of our family."
"Two." Terri said, holding up her fingers. "Terri two."
Bree laughed. "I take it she just had a birthday."
"I ... I ... think so," Elena stammered.
She didn't know her own daughter's birthday? Bree glanced at her. The woman belonged in the hospital, and Bree was tempted to take her there in spite of her protests.
Elena's gaze went past the lighthouse to the buoy across the water. The buoy foghorn blared out, and the light flickered on and off. "It's peaceful here."
"You're safe," Bree assured her. She got out and opened the Jeep's back door for Samson, Terri, and her son. She led the way past the dogwood dusted with a trace of snow. They'd often had more snow in late March, but the weather seemed to be indicating an early spring.
Kade had turned on the porch light for them, and the welcoming beams spilled into the yard. She pushed open the door. "Kade, we have a guest," she called.
He was probably at the kitchen table working on his swan relocation plan. His boss at the park service wanted a flock of mute swans moved before they harmed the population of the native trumpeter swans. She led Elena down the hall, past pictures of their wedding day three years ago and other photos that showed Davy from infancy through his current second-grade school picture.
They walked through the living room to the kitchen. Still dressed in his brown park-service uniform, Kade sat bent over a swath of paperwork that nearly covered the table. His dark hair fell across his broad forehead and stuck up at the back where he'd evidently swiped at it with his hand.
"Hi, honey," she said. "Come say hello to our guest."
His blue eyes held a faraway look, but they sharpened when his gaze went past her to Elena. He frowned, and Bree knew he'd seen the goose egg on the woman's face. "She's okay," she said.
Kade's gaze sank lower. "No, I don't think she is."
Bree turned and saw where his eyes were fixed. Elena had let loose of her grip on the blanket, and it gaped to reveal that her shirt from the right rib area down was saturated with blood. A fixed, glazed stare made her think Elena might pass out.
"Here, sit down." Bree lowered her onto the sofa.
"I'll get blood on your couch," Elena muttered.
"It's leather. It will clean. Kade, get me some hot water and soap. And some clean rags. Call Dr. Matilla."
"Let me see," Bree said. Without waiting for an answer, she lifted the woman's top and winced when she saw the slash. Long and nasty, but probably not life-threatening. "You'll need this stitched."
"I think I'm going to pass out," Elena whispered.
"Here, lie down." Bree raised Elena's bare feet onto the sofa, and she laid her head back. Bree kept pressure on the back of her head. "Better?"
"Yes." The words were faint but clear.
Kade came in carrying a pan of water and some clean rags. "The doctor is on his way."
"Lie still." Bree began to dab the blood from Elena's abdomen. The woman winced when the cloth passed over the raw edges of the cut. The water soon turned as red as the cloth. "I need some fresh water," she told Kade.
Excerpted from abomination by COLLEEN COBLE Copyright © 2007 by Colleen Coble. Excerpted by permission.
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